Free Software Production as Critical Social Practice

(2013) 42(4) Economy and Society pp. 597-625

Posted: 3 Apr 2013 Last revised: 7 Dec 2013

See all articles by Anne Barron

Anne Barron

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) - Department of Law

Date Written: May 31, 2012


This article analyses the phenomenon of free and open source software (FOSS) in the light of Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s epic study of the business culture associated with the network economy, The New Spirit of Capitalism (first published in France in 1999). It argues that collaborative FOSS production by volunteer software developers is a species of critical social practice in Boltanski and Chiapello’s sense: rooted in resistance to capitalist social relations, and yet also a source of values that justify the new routes to profitability associated with contemporary network capitalism. Advanced via collective projects that are sustained by hacker norms and privately-legislated ‘copyleft’ law, the FOSS ethos is apparently antithetical to private property-based accumulation. Yet it can be shown to embody the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ in its most distilled form; moreover FOSS developers have instituted new forms of property and new modes of profit-creation around software that are in the process of being adapted for use in other economic sectors. Meanwhile, the private law constraints on profit-seeking that have emerged from the FOSS movement are counteracting some of the social pathologies that accompany network capitalism only to consolidate others. The article concludes by identifying likely bases for a renewal of critique given these realities.

Keywords: Branding, copyleft, free software, immaterial labour, new spirit of capitalism, open source, reputational capital

Suggested Citation

Barron, Anne, Free Software Production as Critical Social Practice (May 31, 2012). (2013) 42(4) Economy and Society pp. 597-625, Available at SSRN:

Anne Barron (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) - Department of Law ( email )

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